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Trump Could Stall Paris Deal Without ‘Tearing It Up’

Yann Caradec/Flickr

Even if U.S. President Donald Trump doesn’t walk away from or try to “tear up” the Paris Agreement, as he threatened on the campaign trail, there’s persistent concern that the new U.S. administration might try to stall implementation of the landmark global deal from the inside.

Both Trump and his nominee for U.S. secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, have hinted the country might keep a hand in international climate diplomacy. But “there’s still a whole lot they could do to bog down global climate talks and hinder efforts to address climate change from within,” notes Brad Plumer on Vox. The question, Grist and Vox both ask, is whether staying around to play a superficial role in Paris implementation is any less damaging than stepping away completely.

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“The unique structure of the Paris deal makes it vulnerable to swings in countries’ internal politics,” Grist notes, based as it is on voluntary targets that don’t yet add up to the carbon reductions required to stabilize the global climate at a long-term threshold of 1.5°C average global warming. So “even if Trump signals he won’t actually ‘cancel’ the agreement, there’s a lot of damage he can do from the inside.

“You can’t have a seat at the table if you put a hand grenade in the agreement,” NRDC’s Jake Schmidt told Grist. “Hopefully [Tillerson] realizes that.”

Those hand grenades could include throwing the brakes on the United States’ domestic carbon reduction efforts, withholding promised financial support from the Green Climate Fund, and bring nothing to the table at the 2018 global “stocktake”, when countries are supposed to put forward their plans to strengthen their Paris targets.

“You can have a seat at the table, but what would you bring to it?” asks the World Resources Institute’s David Waskow. “Part of leaning in is for the U.S. to, under Paris, not walk away from a national climate plan.”

As for the global stock-take, “if the U.S. were to show up empty-handed, other countries could backslide on their own commitments,” writes Grist’s Rebecca Leber, even though not a single country showed signs in that direction at the Marrakech climate conference, in the days after Trump was elected.

“If Tillerson turns the State Department into a front for oil diplomacy,” Leber continues, “he could damage international efforts to switch from oil, gas, and coal to renewables.

Some advocates say the best hope is that the Trump administration sets less ambitious climate goals, but opts to stay in the Paris agreement to save face. “It’s one thing for us to totally walk away, another thing for us to be only halfhearted,” Schmidt said. “Maybe the best thing we can hope for in a Trump administration is to not destroy the progress of eight-plus years and leave us in a position to pick up the pieces when Trump is out of office.”